The Elsewhere Illness

It was a little more than a year ago that we peeled away from the tarmac of South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, bound for Hong Kong. Early that morning J and I had hoisted our bags onto our backs, snapped a parting photo of the door to our Seoul apartment — Unit 703 — and then lumbered down to the metro. We were both sad and excited; after a final exhausting week of preparing to leave our adopted home, we allowed the plans we had set in motion to carry us forward.

We landed in a foreign world. While J had visited the tropics in other regions, neither she nor I had experienced this part of Asia, and its features were fantastic. The machinery of the city was stitched together over spits of land. It was cut into steep peaks and nestled into jungle, with Hong Kongers traversing it unblinkingly via boat, tram, underwater train, careening double-decker or soaring cable car. The humidity was so impermeable that we woke each morning in our air-conditioned hotel to fine drops of dew on the comforter.

The end of the line at Shek O, Hong Kong Island

It was overwhelming — and wonderful. We slurped strong milk tea and drank fresh mango slushies; we ate delectable crab congee; we cooled ourselves in the waters of a tiny bay after a sweltering hike along “The Dragons Back”; and we versed ourselves on the history of the qipao, the stunning, form-fitting dress that is iconic of Hong Kong. The heady mishmash of experiences had us buzzed for the road ahead through China, India and Southeast Asia. It seems strange now that barely three weeks later, in a hostel in the middle of Xian, the momentum was broken.

We were considering a change of plans after reading reports that dengue fever was rampant in Delhi, and one surprisingly cheap plane ticket would have taken us back through Incheon. Suddenly, I found myself aching at the thought of returning to Seoul.

“I can’t,” I said to J. “If we go back, I don’t think I’ll be able to leave again.”

***

It’s been called lots of things, but the nuance is different with each turn of phrase. “Wanderlust” is a common encapsulation of it; “the grass-is-always-greener syndrome” is another, although that’s more negative. What I was suffering from — and continue to be afflicted by — is what I call “the elsewhere illness.” It’s that involuntary habit of losing yourself in where you were, or where you would like to be. It comes suddenly but its effects linger, like a chill or a heart palpitation. You might spend an afternoon coping with the residuals, finding that spot on a map and then just wishing to relive the feelings that place brought. Or you might just scroll through flight times on the Internet for a while, hovering over the “purchase” button when you find the one you like.

It’s not always that self-indulgent. One of the most wrenching fits of it I ever saw was after a friend of mine back in high school named S, who had come to the Seattle area from Korea to live with her father, opened a care package from her mom. It had clothes and some books, and a short note. After reading it, she just knelt down on the carpet for a while and cried — wishing, I’m sure, to be back with her mother for even just a moment, to reclaim her old life.

A few days later, S and I drove down to shore of Puget Sound, and with the waters of the Pacific at our feet, I pointed northeast and said, child-like, “Korea is just over there.” She cracked a smile. That’s the bright point of the elsewhere illness; it can inspire a feeling of connectedness, or drive an ambition to move onward and upward.

But the great irony of the elsewhere illness is that while it may push you out the door and onto the road for adventure, you continue to carry it. The problem then is obvious: even when you arrive, you’re never fully there — the present is obscured by restlessness. There were times while living back in Unit 703, usually in the morning, that I would look out our window onto the quiet Seoul neighborhood below. Occasionally I would see people watering their roof gardens, or jumping rope in a morning exercise routine. I would try to just be still and take it all in, reminding myself of how I had dreamed of making the city my home for years. But I could never quite focus, and there were many other times I spent sitting in that apartment feeling just plain homesick.

The View from Unit 703, Seoul

Negotiating a balance between a passion for “elsewhere” and desire to be happy — I might even say “settled” — in my daily life has been my work since moving to Washington. Admittedly, what I have often felt since arriving here has been akin to the ache that struck me in Xian. It isn’t helped by the way I’ve chosen to keep up my Korean listening skills: listening to a downloaded radio talk show about — of course — travel. For a change of pace, I decided to try listening to a different show one week, this one called “Blue Night with Jeong Yeop.”

The first show I listened to as I rode the train home from work. It opened with bit of moody piano and an easy beat; then a narrator, presumably Mr. Jeong, piped in with an even moodier, ponderous tone. “Sometimes people ask us, ‘When was the happiest moment in your life?”” he said. “Most people who are asked this question hesitate — not because they can’t think of a happy moment, but because they can’t figure out how to separate them, how to pick the right one.”

Here he added: “You don’t have to agonize over it, though. Because the right answer is, ‘That moment hasn’t arrived yet.'”

It was cheesy, but it made me chuckle. The train came up out of the tunnel and onto the bridge across the Potomac, and briefly the evening sunlight filtered into the car where I sat. A few moments passed before the train sank down into the earth again, and pulled ahead.

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